Colorado’s rural fire departments facing challenges – how does Lamar fare?

Lamar Fire Chief Jeremy Burkhart

A recent article published by Colorado Politics discussed Colorado’s rural fire departments and the struggles they face regarding recruiting and retention challenges, as well as a growing demand for emergency medical services due to an aging population.  Also mentioned was a November 2023 survey conducted by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control which identified work-life balance, compensation, and benefits as one of the primary drivers behind the troubling trend in firefighter retention.

Interviewed for the Colorado Politics article was T.J. Steck, Elizabeth, CO Fire Chief.  Steck said he believes the situation is reaching a tipping point. “The problem with areas out in the eastern Colorado area is they’re not growing,” he said. “So, they’re not getting the additional tax revenue that would allow them to look at maybe hiring people or having full-time staff to make sure that they have a minimal response, but they don’t have the money to do it. Most rural areas are primarily taxed as agriculture, and so the money just isn’t there.” Steck also mentioned that the population is rapidly aging due to people not wanting to leave Colorado as they grow older, which puts further strain on EMS services.  In the Elizabeth area, 80% of their calls are for emergency services rather than for fires.

“When there’s no one there to respond, people aren’t going to stop calling 911,” he said. “Fire departments aren’t like the local bakery that can close their door for a day if somebody’s not there to work. They have to keep their doors open.”

needs assessment released in April 2023 by the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control estimates that the state needs an additional 1,085 career firefighters and 1,300 volunteer firefighters just to return to adequate staffing. “We’re really starting to see a crisis in rural areas,” Steck said, “along with trouble in the mid-Denver and Colorado Springs metro areas, where they’re having trouble getting people to apply for these jobs in a career mode.”

After reading this article, I was curious if Lamar had these same challenges, so I reached out to Jeremy Burkhart, Fire Chief, Lamar Fire & Emergency Services to ask his opinion about this.  He had seen the article as well and gave me his thoughts on how these issues pertain to Lamar and the surrounding area.  He told me that “it is very reflective of many of the issues Lamar Fire as well as surrounding communities are facing”.   He went on to say that “volunteerism is down through the country, unlike the 70’s and 80’s when volunteer fire departments had plenty of help.”  Paid staff for the fire department as well is affected as “It has been difficult attracting qualified applicants from out of town.  Either their roots and families are in the metropolitan areas, or they do not see the value of commuting three and a half plus hours to work” and that “a lot of new graduates from fire academies look at our department as a steppingstone to a metropolitan department instead of a destination department, only staying long enough to fulfill experience requirements for other opportunities”, he stated.

Lamar, however, has taken proactive steps to help attract qualified applicants to work and volunteer here.  Burkhart said “by having a 48 hour on, 96 hour off schedule, it allows for commuting from the front range, as well as give firefighters and EMTs time to rest and be a part of their families’ lives.  We promote Lamar for its affordable housing as compared to the front range as well as the cost of living being lower.  We have started taking the approach of cultivating individuals that are local who have an interest and drive, yet do not have experience or training.  We utilize the Emergency Medical Services program at Lamar Community College to help individuals earn their EMT-Basic or EMT-Advanced”.  He also credited the Prowers County Commissioners for providing funds for individuals to acquire their EMT so that the classes can be low or no cost.  Lamar Fire can then help the individual obtain their state fire and hazmat certifications with in-house training and support.

“We always encourage people to check out their local fire department, or ambulance service to see if they would like to join. There is always a need to be filled, and not all people understand the different avenues they can help with. Thank you for your time addressing this matter, please visit our Facebook page at Lamar Fire & Emergency Services as this is one of our methods of updating our community about events and what their fire department is accomplishing.”

I’d like to thank Chief Burkhart for his time and thoughts about this problem and would encourage the community to thank all our First Responders, as they deserve our utmost respect.  Also, it’s encouraging to see all the new businesses coming to the Lamar area as they further enhance the prospect of attracting new employees and families.

By: Barbara Crimond




Filed Under: City of LamarFeaturedLaw EnforcementPublic Safety


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